By Emma Woodham for The Island Eye News
Three New York Times bestselling authors spent the afternoon of Sunday, Jan. 27 sharing about their latest novels at the 12th Wild Dunes Author Series.
Mary Alice Monroe invited two of her close friends, Lisa Wingate and Patti Callahan Henry, to Wild Dunes for the event. Henry has participated in the event several times in past years.
“This is a lucky day, because if we weren’t pals, I don’t think these ladies would have been able to be here today,” Monroe said.
All three women are good friends and met through the literary world. Patti Callahan Henry first heard of Mary Alice Monroe from Marjorie Wentworth, the famed South Carolina poet, who told her that she needed to meet Monroe. Eventually, Monroe invited Henry to stay on Isle of Palms.
“The first time I met her was when I knocked on her front door with a suitcase in my hand,” Henry said.
Henry and Wingate met because their books were being published around the same time, and Henry emailed Wingate to introduce herself. Over the years, they’ve formed a friendship, and Wingate later met Monroe at a book festival.
“We spend lots of time brainstorming our books together,” Monroe said.
Both Wingate and Henry released historical fiction novels in 2018, both featuring strong women, and both books have received numerous accolades.
Before We Were Yours, Wingate’s novel, focuses on the fictional life of a woman who survived the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, an illegally operated orphanage in Tennessee. Georgia Tann, the woman in charge of the children’s home, stole and kidnapped children in the Memphis, Tennessee area from 1920-1950. During that thirty-year span, Tann adopted out thousands of children, often separating them from loving parents when she had the children abducted from their homes. Many children who didn’t behave or adapt disappeared and are presumed to have been killed.
“So many people say that they read the book and thought it was ridiculous, until they read the Author’s Note that says the book is based on true events. They’re shocked,” Wingate said.
Wingate was first inspired to write about the true events that happened under Tann’s authority when she was pulling an allnighter to meet a deadline for another novel she was writing.
“I turned the TV on at two in the morning, and I saw this Discovery show about deadly women, and they were talking about Georgia Tann. I immediately started digging into it,” Wingate said.
During her research for the book, Wingate interviewed two survivors of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society who went through the system as babies, neither of whom wanted to be named or tied to the story. After her book was published, however, Wingate’s inbox began to fill with emails from other survivors, many of whom wanted to share what little information they had about their own adoptions. Finally, one year after the release of Before We Were Yours, Wingate helped organize a reunion for survivors and their families, all of whom gathered together.
“They came together to reclaim their history,” Wingate said.
Wingate is now working on a non-fiction book about this subject, and it is set to be released in late 2019.
Patti Callahan Henry had a similar moment of certainty when she decided to write Becoming Mrs. Lewis, the true story of Joy Davidman, the woman known primarily as the wife of C.S. Lewis.
“I was feeling stuck one day with my writing, and a friend asked me what I would write about if I could write about anything. I immediately said, ‘Joy Davidman’. And I just got this feeling up the back of my neck,” Henry said.
Henry told herself she didn’t write historical fiction, but she eventually decided to write the book in secret without telling her publisher. Over the course of three years, she conducted extensive research on Davidman and her life, even taking a trip to England to learn more.
“I think ideas tap you on the shoulder,” Henry said.
Monroe responded by saying she believes that Henry was chosen to write this specific story.
“I think Joy Davidman chose you,” Monroe said.
While writing the novel, Henry tried not to think about the possibility that Douglas Gresham, the only surviving child of Joy Davidman and the sole executor of the C.S. Lewis estate, might not approve of the book. When her agent was shopping around for publishers, they allowed the publishing company’s legal team to figure out the details. Gresham, however, reached out to Henry after learning that she had been researching his mother at the Wade Center in Chicago. At the advice of her agent, Henry answered him truthfully, telling him that she was looking to honor and respect his mother by telling her extraordinary story.
“He probably thought I had an altar to her somewhere,” Henry said.
Henry and Gresham continued to email back and forth and eventually established a friendship. When he traveled to the U.S., she found out he was in Asheville, North Carolina, and she drove up to meet him. He shared many stories with her, several of which Henry included in the book. Ultimately, Gresham granted her permission to publish Becoming Mrs. Lewis and has since praised her book during an interview on the Read-Aloud Revival podcast.
“When I was writing this book, I knew it was different. I didn’t know if it was going to be big, but I just knew I had to do it,” Henry said.
Following the conversation, guests were treated to hors d’oeuvres and had the opportunity to meet the authors and get their books signed. Buxton Books was on hand for the event, selling all three authors’ books.
Proceeds from a silent auction at the event as well as a portion of the ticket sales were donated to Reading Partners, an organization that works with children who struggle to master basic reading. Dr. Katie Qualls, the Program Director, encouraged the guests to considering donating their time to Reading Partners by volunteering to be mentors in local schools.
Monroe thanked everyone, especially Wingate and Henry, for taking the time to attend the event and reminded everyone that Henry’s new book, The Favorite Daughter, and her own book, The Summer Guests, will be released in June. Wingate’s non-fiction work will be released sometime in the fall.